Alexander Wain

Alexander Wain

Wednesday, 18 September 2019 12:03

Could Melaka have gotten its name from a tree?

Precisely why is Melaka called Melaka? This deceptively simple question is loaded with ideological baggage. It has been used to establish religious authenticity and to justify elevating certain groups over others in Malaysian history. For the sake of an accurate reconstruction of the past, resolving it is therefore crucial.

The roots of this question lie in Melaka’s court chronicle, Sejarah Melayu. Written in 1612, this text provides two, quite separate etymons for “Melaka”.

The first (and most well-known) appears alongside the story of Melaka’s founder, Iskandar Shah. Also known as Parameswara, Iskandar was a descendant of the Buddhist rajas of Palembang, the old centre of Srivijaya.

After fleeing a Javanese attack on Singapore, he travelled to Sungai Bertam; while hunting there, he sheltered under a tree, where he saw a white mousedeer attack his hunting dog.

Impressed by the small animal’s bravery, Iskandar decided to establish his new capital on that very spot. Asking his officials which tree he stood under, he was told it was the Melaka tree, and so the new city gained its name.

The second etymon was, until recently, more obscure. Mentioned briefly in the context of Mansur Shah’s reign (1459-1477), it describes how Melaka’s commercial rise under that ruler prompted the Arabs to call it Malakat, “or the mart for collecting all merchants”.

So, which of these possibilities is the more plausible? And what might that tell us about Melaka? Beginning with the second, Sejarah Melayu’s “Malakat” is the Arabic mulaqah, meaning meeting or encounter.

In recent years, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has strenuously championed this etymon, claiming both Jawi and Portuguese texts originally spelt Melaka with a “q” not a “k”, thereby confirming mulaqah as the correct etymon.

This has allowed him to privilege Arabs in the conversion of both Melaka and the Malays.

There are, however, problems with this argument.

FIRST, the name “Melaka” does not originate from the period 1459-1477. The Chinese Ming shi-lu is clear that Melaka already bore this name in 1403, when it was still only a fishing village, long before the Arabs began to frequent it.

SECOND, early Portuguese authors could not speak Malay. Their renderings of Malay words were inconsistent, inaccurate, and incapable of informing us about early Malay spelling conventions.

Tomé Pires, for example, spelt Melaka as “Malaqa”, “Malaca” and “Malacca”. No reason exists to accept the first over the other two, especially as the latter became the accepted norm.

Finally, contrary to al-Attas’ claim, early Jawi manuscripts spelt Melaka with a “k” not a “q”. As this form also lacks the final alif and ta’ marbutah of mulaqah, little reason exists to equate it with the latter.

Indeed, mulaqah appears separately in Jawi (pronounced as mulakat). This only confirms a lack of equivalency. There is also no evidence the Arabs actually called Melaka “mulaqah”.

The navigational treatises of Ahmad ibn Majid and Sulayman al-Mahri are the only surviving early Arabic texts to mention Melaka. Neither author spells the city’s name “mulaqah”, instead calling it either malaqah, mala’qah, or ma’laqah.

Often appearing side-by-side, these differing forms suggest the Arabs — just like the Portuguese — were unsure of how to spell Melaka, presumably because it was a foreign word. This is hardly conducive to their having given the city its name. If we can therefore dismiss this etymon, what of the other?

It is entirely plausible that Melaka was named after a tree; many early Southeast Asian toponyms (a place name) were derived this way. Majapahit, for example, was named for pokok maja, whose fruit is very bitter (pahit).

Moreover, a pokok melaka does exist. Bearing the scientific name Phyllanthus emblica, its habitat extends across the Indian Ocean and into Southeast Asia.

Although some dismiss its Malay name as fiction, intended merely to conform to Sejarah Melayu’s story, in Sanskrit the plant is called “amalaka”. It is easy to see how amalaka could become “Melaka”, especially as Malays also call the tree laka, demonstrating a tendency to shorten its name from the front.

But, if “Melaka” derives from amalaka, what does this tell us? As mentioned, Melaka’s rulers hailed from Buddhist Srivijaya; when Melaka was founded, it too, was Buddhist.

According to Buddhist tradition, 24 Buddhas came before Gautama Buddha, the lives of whom were celebrated across mainland Southeast Asia, including in Thailand, which once dominated Melaka.

The 21st of these figures, Phussa Buddha, gained enlightenment under the amalaka tree. Given the Buddhist Iskandar Shah is similarly depicted under the Melaka tree, is Sejarah Melayu trying to identify him with Phussa Buddha?

Certainly, Buddhist symbolism permeates other sections of Sejarah Melayu. For example, Iskandar’s ancestry is traced to Sri Tri Buana, a semi-divine figure who descended from heaven atop of Palembang’s sacred Bukit Seguntang Mahameru.

The signs of sovereignty bestowed upon him, including the right to reside on the sacred mountain, an elaborate crown studded with jewels, and the ability to turn the hilltop into gold, replicate the sovereign powers of the Bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara. This suggests Sri Tri Buana was an incarnation of that figure.

Plausibly, Iskandar Shah represents something similar: an enlightened being, a bridge between Muslim Melaka and ancient Buddhist Srivijaya.

If so, he embodies the inherent cosmopolitanism of Malay society, a quality as important today as in past centuries.

Alexander Wain, is Associate Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia

Published in: New Straits Times, Wednesday 18 September 2019

Source :



The Malay world, while united by a common language, a collective commitment to Islam and a shared history, also preserves a variously expressed but mutually-held set of customary traditions (adat).

Muslim scholars, both past and present, have long debated the Islamic legitimacy of adat. In reality, however, many adat practices complement the ideals of Islam — ideals often overlooked by more “orthodox” Muslim practitioners. This is particularly so regarding the treatment of women.

A perception exists that Islam encourages the seclusion of women. While modern feminist readings of the Quran are celebrated for challenging this, it is worth noting that Malay adat has permitted Muslim women to attain public positions of power and influence for centuries.

In wake of International Women’s Day 2019, this article celebrates five Southeast Asian “Queens of Islam”, beginning with two sisters from the region’s early Peranakan (Sino-Malay) community.

During the late 1300s, the once great city of Palembang, former capital of Srivijaya, became a Chinese-led pirate base. In that guise, it wrought chaos throughout the Straits, disrupting trade and threatening regional peace until Zheng He, exasperated by the threat it posed to his fleets, attacked and conquered the city in 1407. Expelling all the city’s pirates, Zheng He appointed Chinese Muslim Shi Jinqing as its new ruler.

Under Shi Jinqing, Palembang embraced Islam and re-engaged in international trade. After his death in c.1421, control of the city was divided between his two daughters, Shi Daniang and Shi Erjie. For more than 20 years, these two ruled the city justly, ensuring the maintenance of peace and the development of a flourishing economy.

Subsequently, Shi Daniang also travelled to Java, where she became shahbandar (harbour master) of Gresik.

With the title Niai Gedi Pinateh, she preached Islam throughout the island, becoming a pivotal figure in its Islamisation. She even adopted and educated Sunan Giri, the most prominent of the Wali Songo.

Elsewhere in the region, the early 16th century saw Perak fall under the control of tribal chieftain, Tun Saban, and his sister, Tok Temong.

In 1528, Tun Saban invited Muzaffar Shah, a descendant of Melaka’s final ruler, to become Perak’s first sultan. During Muzaffar Shah’s inauguration, Tok Temong presented him with Mestika Embun, a powerful talisman. She refused, however, to cede her territory; confident of her own authority, she reminded Muzaffar Shah that, while he may rule Tun Saban’s lands to the right of Sungai Perak, she ruled to the left.

Although Tok Temong’s territory would ultimately pass to Muzaffar Shah upon her death, the latter refrained from challenging her authority throughout her lifetime, demonstrating the respect she commanded. Even today, Mestika Embun remains a crucial part of Perak’s royal regalia, without which royal authority cannot pass from one generation to the next. Until the reign of Sultan Idris Murshidul Azzam Shah (1887-1916), Perak’s royal graves and settlements were also exclusively located on the right side of Sungai Perak, out of respect for Tok Temong.

Turning to 17th century Aceh, this staunchly Islamic and fabulously wealthy Southeast Asian kingdom was famously ruled by Sultan Iskandar Muda from 1607 to 1636. It is often forgotten, however, that Iskandar Muda was succeeded by his daughter, Sultanah Safiatuddin Syah (1641-75).

While some have suggested that Sultanah Safiatuddin’s appointment was a ruse by Aceh’s powerful nobility to weaken royal authority, her ascension actually reflected the power of local matrilineal adat and the support of Nuruddin al-Raniri, Aceh’s shaykh al-Islam.

In his Bustan al-Salatin, al-Raniri argued that Sultanah Safiatuddin possessed all the qualities necessary for leadership and should therefore be allowed to rule, just as local adat permitted. Even the Dutch supported this assessment, describing her as “good-natured but awe-inspiring”.

Today, however, Sultanah Safiatuddin is poorly received by historians, who blame her for Aceh’s mid-17th century decline.

But, while Aceh did lose most of its empire under Sultanah Safiatuddin, to attribute this to her leadership is unjust.

The 17th century witnessed intense European expansion in Southeast Asia. The Dutch, in particular, actively tried to smash all Malay involvement in regional trade, bringing many great Malay and Javanese commercial centres, including Johor, Banten and Mataram, under their control.

That Aceh maintained its independence in the face of such aggression, while continuing to constitute a major trade centre, is both impressive and a testament to the sultanah’s ability to govern effectively.

Moreover, under Sultanah Safiatuddin, Aceh produced a rich legacy of Malay Islamic scholarship that, arguably, has not been equalled since.

Far from a failure, therefore, she emerged as one of 17th century Southeast Asia’s most successful rulers.

Our final Muslim woman head of state of this region, Cik Siti Wan Kembang, governed Kelantan between 1610 and 1667.

A warrior princess who entered battle on horseback accompanied by an army of female horse riders, Cik Siti Wan Kembang ushered in a mini Golden Age during which Kelantan asserted itself internationally, attracting merchants from all over the world and generating a degree of prosperity not seen again for a century.

Today, the favourite pet of Cik Siti Wan Kembang, the muntjac (barking deer), appears on Kelantan’s state emblem as a reminder of this glorious past.

Although these five ‘Queens’ lived many centuries ago, the longevity of Malay adat has ensured that women continue to contribute to Malay society. While hurdles undoubtedly remain, adat has helped female empowerment progress further and deeper amongst Malays than among other sections of the Muslim ummah.

Alexander Wain, is Associate Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia

Published in: New Straits Times, Thursday 21 March 2019

Source :



Friday, 05 October 2018 09:47

A continuity of prejudice

The wave of populism currently engulfing Europe has seen an exponential rise in the fortunes of the continent’s far-right.

In recent years the neo-fascist Marine le Pen has reached the final round of the French presidential elections; Holland’s rabidly Islamophobic Party of Freedom has become the second largest party in the Dutch parliament; the autocratic and anti-Muslim Viktor Orban continues to govern Hungary; and, the British people have voted to turn their backs on European integration in favour of an isolationist nationalism hostile to outsiders.

Even in Sweden, the traditional bastion of stable democratic rule, the far-right Sweden Democrats have become the third largest party in the Riksdag, denying either of the country’s two major parties a majority for the first time.

Such developments have invited comparisons to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. During that earlier period, populist politicians exploited economic unrest in order to promote their own xenophobic agendas, using valid concerns about falling incomes, rising inflation and declining living standards to rail against supposed “intruders” whom they claim are destroying European society from within.

But while 1930s populism directed its ire against Europe’s Jews, today Muslims have come under attack. This shift largely reflects changing demographics; Muslims now constitute Europe’s principle “stranger” and, therefore, the most obvious target of xenophobia. The accusations directed against them, however, differ little in substance from those encountered by the Jews more than 80 years ago.

In the 1930s, Jews were habitually depicted as parasitic, unscrupulous businessmen who hoarded vast amounts of wealth plundered from their Christian neighbours. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I, German Jews were also accused of actively conspiring against their countrymen so they might profit from the resulting chaos. Most shockingly, rumours abounded of so-called “blood libel”, of Jews kidnapping and murdering Christian children (the most vulnerable members of society) so their blood could be used in Jewish rituals.

Although the specifics of these accusations differ from those now hurled at Muslims, the substance remains the same. Muslims are, therefore, also parasitic because their extreme poverty means they sap the resources of an already overburdened state, pillaging the jobs that rightfully belong to the poorest members of the “indigenous” population. Muslims also represent a danger to European security; any one of them might be a terrorist seeking to attack his adopted country for his own gain. And although not accused of murdering children, the traditional European stereotype of Muslim men as violent and lustful has resurfaced in a new form; across northern England in particular, it is commonly believed that the Quran encourages paedophilia, with gangs of Muslim paedophiles now roaming the streets in search of vulnerable Christian girls.

But if little variation exists between the underlying justifications employed by contemporary far-right politicians seeking the expulsion of Muslims from Europe and Nazis demanding Europe be purged of its “Jewish threat”, in one respect there is a significant difference. Since the horrors of World War II, Europe has enacted strict laws preventing the persecution of religious minorities.

Implemented with the intent of preventing another holocaust, these laws have made it socially and politically unacceptable to target specific religious groups for persecution. This has necessitated an evolution in far-right discourse; to render their message more palatable, the far right have begun to employ a common mantra: Islam is not a religion but an ideology. Islamophobia is therefore presented as a legitimate form of political critique, as the condemnation of a dangerous ideology, rather than as a form of ethnic or religious prejudice. And while religions cannot be banned, ideologies can.

Such intellectual acrobatics have become regrettably commonplace in Europe, even entering the political mainstream. With European media outlets demonstrating themselves all too ready to propagate a negative image of Islam, a dangerous environment of public hostility has emerged in which Muslims could, should history repeat itself, find themselves in a very precarious situation.

The Muslims of Europe must therefore unite to meet this threat. They must demonstrate to their fellow Europeans that, far from a danger, they constitute an enrichment of European culture and identity, a strength that will only benefit the continent in years to come. If Muslims convey this message both quickly and successfully, they may yet reverse the tide of prejudice currently encroaching upon their new homelands.

Alexander Wain, is a specialist in the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and China, is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. He can be reached via This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 5 October 2018

Source :



Friday, 06 July 2018 18:47

Is Hang Tuah for real?

A lack of evidence is a perennial problem stalking all those interested in early Malaysian history. Although once home to several prominent pre-modern kingdoms, Malaysia has not preserved the textual resources nor rich archaeological record necessary to produce authoritative history.

A consequence of this is heated debate, most notably concerning the historicity of certain prominent individuals, such as famed Melakan warrior Hang Tuah.

In recent years, several radically opposing views have developed concerning Hang Tuah, from Rohaidah Kamaruddin’s claim to have found confirmation of his existence in Japanese records, to Ahmat Adam’s assertion that Hang Tuah is “a fictional character that existed in the classic texts of Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah only”.

This last, rather controversial, opinion has begun to garner widespread support in Malaysia. It is, therefore, worth examining further; could Hang Tuah really be fictitious?

Our modern image of Hang Tuah derives largely from the late 17th to early 18th century Johor text, Hikayat Hang Tuah. This in turn draws upon Sejarah Melayu, also from Johor, but dated more than half a century earlier, to 1621.

Problematically, Hikayat Hang Tuah shows obvious signs of embellishment and appropriation. For instance, at its heart sits a war between Melaka and Majapahit, caused by Mansur Shah’s marriage to a Pahang princess. Although this conflict is the backdrop to much of the Hang Tuah story, no other early Malay, Javanese, or European source attests to it. Sejarah Melayu, for example, merely claims a young Hang Tuah visited Majapahit in the company of Mansur Shah when the latter married the daughter of the Batara of Majapahit. No war is mentioned. Rather, this Melaka-Majapahit conflict appears to be a cypher for the Johor-Jambi conflict of 1666-1688.

Occurring shortly before Hikayat Hang Tuah was written, this conflict likewise began because of a royal marriage, before proceeding through a similar series of events to those described in Hikayat Hang Tuah.

More particularly, many of the actions attributed to Hang Tuah during this war correspond to events in the life of Abd al-Jamil, the Johor Laksamana who triumphed over Jambi, suggesting that aspects of the latter’s biography have been transposed onto Hang Tuah.

This need not mean, however, that Hang Tuah is merely a fictionalised version of Abd al-Jamil; Hang Tuah’s biography, with its roots in Sejarah Melayu, written long before the Johor-Jambi conflict, extends far beyond any resemblance to Abd al-Jamil.

It is true, however, that all the stories surrounding Hang Tuah, whether in Hikayat Hang Tuah or Sejarah Melayu, seem designed to convey one message: loyalty to the monarch. Could Hang Tuah, therefore, be nothing more than a convenient fiction designed to convey this traditional Malay value?

Several reasons make this unlikely.

First, early Malay writers did not compose purely fictitious narratives. Rather, they merged genuine historical events with myth, co-opting the otherworldly aura of the latter to enhance the status of the former.

Thus, Sejarah Melayu heavily mythologises the origin of Melaka’s ruling house, both to sanctify its sultans and justify their right to rule.

Doing so, however, does not imply those individuals or their dynasty were fictitious; it merely bolstered their legitimacy. By the same token, a mythologised account of Hang Tuah does not mean he was imaginary, only that his biographer wished to enhance his standing.

It should also be borne in mind that early Malay epic biographies centred on a single individual are rare. Aside from Hikayat Hang Tuah, only one comparable example exists from the same period: Hikayat Aceh, an equally mythologised biography of Sultan Iskandar Muda. Since the latter was undoubtedly a real person, no precedent exists for a pre-modern Malay text centred on an entirely imaginary figure, suggesting Hikayat Hang Tuah refers to a real person.

Finally, the Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires (written 1512-1515), generally considered authoritative on Melakan history, refers to only three (unnamed) Melakan Laksamana, one under Mansur Shah and two under Mahmud Shah. Significantly, Sejarah Melayu also identifies just three Melakan Laksamana, reputedly the only three bearers of the title: Hang Tuah under Mansur Shah, followed by Khoja Hussain and Hang Nadim under Mahmud Shah.

According to Sejarah Melayu, Khoja Hussain died after Mahmud Shah’s scandalous marriage to Tun Fatimah, the daughter of his Bendahara, while Hang Nadim survived the Portuguese conquest to command the Johor navy. Pires records precisely the same information about his final two Laksamana, thereby corroborating Sejarah Melayu’s account.

Within that context, the possibility that Pires’s first Laksamana is Hang Tuah must be taken seriously. Moreover, Pires also mentions Mansur Shah’s Treasurer, said to have been a Tamil and the grandfather of the aforementioned Bendahara. According to Sejarah Melayu, the latter was Tun Mutahir, whose grandfather was Tun Ali. This last individual was indeed Mansur Shah’s Treasurer, as well as the son of Tun Rana Wati, daughter of the Tamil merchant Mani Purindan. Again, therefore, the texts confirm each other.

More significantly, however, Sejarah Melayu describes Tun Ali as Hang Tuah’s patron, while Khoja Hussain and Hang Nadim were supposedly his son-in-laws. As we can state with confidence that these three people existed, it is clear that figures from within the broader Hang Tuah tradition are demonstrably verifiable.

Combined with the points discussed above, this dramatically increases the probability that Hang Tuah was also once a real person. 

The writer, a specialist in the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and China, is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.

Published in: New Straits Times, Friday 6 July 2018

Source :



Liu Zhi (ca.1670-1739), also known as Liu Jia Lian, was born in the former Chinese imperial capital of Nanjing.  Little is known about his background and personal life – only that his relatives considered him too studious and, therefore, quite dull! He was, however, a member of China’s Hui community. With roots stretching back to the seventh century, the Hui were (and continue to be) a sizable community of Sinicised Muslims. Originally descended from a transient population of Persian and Arab merchants, by the seventeenth century the Hui were fully acculturated Chinese Muslims: they spoke Chinese, wore Chinese clothing and observed Chinese customs. Because of (in some cases centuries of) intermarriage, they also appeared physically identical to the Han (China’s dominant ethnic group).  Despite this level of acculturation, however, the Hui maintained.......... [click here to download the full article in pdf ]



Thursday, 22 October 2015 17:25

Ḥamza al-Fanṣūrī

Ḥamza al-Fanṣūrī is the first identifiable Southeast Asian Islamic scholar to leave behind a substantial and systematic body of work. Very little, however, is known about his life; although his nisba suggests he came from Fansur (modern-day Barus, in north Sumatra), little else is certain. As outlined below, however, he apparently travelled to the Middle East (notably Makkah and Baghdad) and subscribed to the Wujūdī brand of Sufism – that is, to the controversial Neo-Platonist brand of mystical philosophy which argues for a unity between God and His creation.  Besides this intellectual pre-occupation, however, most other aspects.......... [click here to download the full article in pdf ]



Friday, 19 January 2018 15:06

Israel must respect rights of others

On Dec 6, United States President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This decision, since rejected by the international community, has caused significant consternation amongst Muslims, for whom Jerusalem (in Arabic al-Quds, ‘The Holy’) was both the first qibla (direction of prayer) and the scene of the mi’raj, or the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent into Heaven.......................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)



Friday, 21 July 2017 14:28

Islam a part of Europe

Since the 2008 financial crisis, a right-wing populism preaching exclusivist nationalism has swept across Europe. Far-right groups that once found themselves relegated to the fringes of European society have exploited the anxieties of the continent’s most disenfranchised to demonise the outsider and popularise the politics of resentment. Utilising populist rhetoric, these once-derided movements have gained a firm foothold within mainstream politics......................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)



Friday, 07 April 2017 10:26

The search for Hang Li Po

As a person of Chinese ancestry who lived among Malay Muslims, Hang Li Po is a prototype for the lived experience of many modern-day Malaysians. Even though the Malacca sultanate had existed for a little more than a century, it gave birth to an astoundingly rich assortment of historical figures — one of the most prominent of whom, however, was not actually from the city itself: the so-called Chinese princess, Hang Li Po.....................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)

Friday, 11 November 2016 10:00

Islamic world, China share core values

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's recent six-day trip to China revives a long tradition of Malay-Chinese co-operation stretching all the way back to the Malacca sultanate. During the early 15th century, three of Malacca's sultans travelled to China, where they vied with other nations to forge a special relationship with the Middle Kingdom.....................Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)